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What silence can show you; 46 days of Vipassana meditation

A bit of background

Whilst in Malta a few months ago in my bedroom sitting before my laptop, I took a deep breath, ignored the doubts and signed myself up to six weeks of silent meditation in a technique I had known about for 12 years but had never tried. I had picked up a mysterious yellow book about the Vipassana meditation practice and all of its stages of insight in 2004 from a random temple in Vietnam on my first ever solo travels at the age of 18. Every journey since then (and there have been many), I took this little meditation book with me. Sometimes it would never get opened, other times I would skim it in confusion, and on rare occasion, I would curiously attempt the basic practices by myself. This little yellow book finally led me through the gates of a meditation centre bloomed from the heart of one of the Gurus students.

So after a year of huge growth in Malta as a yoga teacher, suddenly there I was in Myanmar, at the Panditarama forest meditation centre, another major pit stop on my inner journey.


What I did, or rather, attempted to do

I ate, slept, walked and sat, with the practice of awareness being the only purpose of my existence for six weeks. The technique is very different in the sense that we had to mentally label absolutely everything that we were experiencing, starting with the rising and falling of the belly….’rising, falling, rising, falling’. Whatever happened next, our job was to ‘know’ and to label…..’thinking, thinking, thinking’, ‘itching, intending, lifting (arm), scratching, good sensation, intending, lowering (arm)’ and so on back to the breath. Even in walking…’left, right, left, right’ and in daily activities… ‘hearing (mosquito), turning, seeing, unpleasant feeling, intending, moving away, wafting, thinking (of killing mosquito), restraining’ and so on.

Wake up bell was at 3am and bedtime at 9pm, with up to 14 hours of formal meditation each day. It was much harder than I had tried not to anticipate and I was very far from executing the technique to my minds standard of perfection. My apprehensive, controlling and perfectionist mind was the catalyst for many painful lessons to come. At times it felt like my mind was going utterly insane, the perceived rigidity of the practice, lack of sleep, regular interviews and constant pressure from the talks and teachers created an strong mental inner conflict that pulled me in all directions. Waves of mental and emotional energy would overthrow me and I was constantly peaking and crashing in my practice. I was somewhat astounded, though not completely surprised by the degree of mental and emotional garbage I still held onto and these six weeks genuinely felt like an awakening to and purging of all of this; not completely, but I hope significantly.

Hearing the voice in your head

Have you ever noticed the voice in your head? Noticed the way it actually sounded? Heard the words ‘ad verbum’? After six weeks of being locked up with my mind, I can tell you that the way the mind ‘thinks’ is completely nonsensical. For me it was a neurotic voice, almost always ‘rehearsing’ what it would say in interview or write in a blog. The poetic lines would just come up one after the other, attacking me as I attempted to focus on my breath or footsteps. One time the voice morphed into the voice of Alan watts and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. That’s when I knew for sure that ‘I’ was not thinking to ‘myself’; I was not instigating any of the thoughts that arose. The mind will throw everything it can at you to try to reel you in and make you believe that ‘you’ are the one that is thinking. It’s actually quite frightening to experience.

Even the intellectualiser, philosopher and thoughtful reflector that I believed to be me, revealed itself as a jumble of repeating neurotic thought patterns. I could not stop my mind from asking questions. Even when I would consciously try to ‘think’ slowly and deliberately, I would watch the thoughts evaporate into nothing the instant it was thought. From where was the thought coming? and where was it going? A million and one more questions assaulted me.

This disconnection from the mind catapulted me back to the memories of my first solo travels in 2004; I was in Cambodia alone wandering down the desolate streets and in my hyper-alert slightly anxious state I heard the voice very clearly in my head for the first time. It was ‘my voice’ and ‘my thoughts’…only…I wasn’t thinking them. Whenever I reached a junction the voice would ask ‘should I turn left or right’, and so I turned and it would continue to speak ‘my thoughts’ completely by itself. I was so spooked and uncomfortable about this that I went back to the guest house and googled the symptoms of schizophrenia. Whenever I was alone and quiet, there is would be, thinking, wondering, planning; an incessant voice in my head…I hadn’t known it at the time but I was simply in a state of awareness of the mind’s thoughts. Because I didn’t know this at the time, a great fear arose and I suppressed the experience and memory with all my effort once I was back home. I guess I must have eventually re-hidden the observer and re-identified with the thoughts.

You are not your mind

On this retreat, I had experienced the mind to a degree that is just not possible when there are so many distractions in the outer world. Even something as trivial as the sounds around you can mask the voice of the mind; the lowest levels of light can hide the mental images that reel through constantly; and the gross bodily feelings drown out the delicate intuitive ones. It is because we don’t experience the mind and bodily sensations clearly that we fall into unconscious identification with them. It requires persistent and clear observation to know that the mind is distinct from yourself and to realise that you are actually… non of it. There is no part of the mind that constitutes you, they are all just the objects deeply rooted in consciousness.

In complete silence (at times I wore ear plugs), and in complete darkness (yes I also wore an eye mask) the most delicate of mental whispers, the most instantaneous flashes of imagery, the most neurotic of thought patterns and the push and pull of the most subtle feelings came to light. Sometimes awareness became so subtle that even mental objects with no visual or hearing component would be felt; a subtle idea or inkling would come and I would look around to try to see it more clearly but it would not be anywhere; the more I observed, the more the mind became a little distant and ghostly, teasing me from all angles and disappearing in a flash.

Just like that time in Cambodia, I saw my mind as alien to me and once again felt so disconnected from it that it raised alarm bells and a fear that I would identify with. I was told it was a good sign of progress to be able to see so many objects of mind so successively, but there was nothing that felt good about it. ‘I’ felt as though I was disintegrating into nothing and this made me feel painfully uncomfortable.

A rollercoaster of emotions – It is what it is

With the waxing and waning of my ability to sharply catch thoughts, the myriad of feelings and emotions began to creep in through the back door. They were cripplingly intense simply because there was no escape from them; one has no choice but to face and experience the rawness of every single emotion.

Over the course of my practice I had stormed into my room on several occasion overcome with frustration and anger and screamed into my pillow. I had also felt overwhelming confusion, doubt and a lack of faith in the practice that had me in periods of conceit, singing sarcastic rebellious melodies in my walking meditation and experimenting intermittently with other techniques. Other times I was overcome with great peace, joy and gratitude, convinced that this is the way and giving thanks to lord Buddha. As usual there was sadness, depression, self defeat and self criticism; whatever I do is never good enough, never right; my heart would crumble into worthless pieces.

In the end, it turned out that fear, a deep seated existential fear was constantly crushing me into the ground, not just throughout my practice, but throughout my life. One night after a day of watching my identity break apart, in a fearful panic I ran back to my room and pulled out any meaningful object that would remind me that I existed, that I was real, that I was Yan and that people cared for me and supported me. I gripped onto those items, curled up in bed and let the waves of fear cry themselves uncontrollably out of me. When I regained some awareness and composure, I consciously took each item and drew my mind to the memories of the beautiful people in my life, what they represent, all the qualities I love about them; it made me cry some more but then I felt a glimmer of hope that what I was doing wasn’t completely insane and there grew the feelings of gratitude that I had the privilege of creating my own life, and faith came back for what I was doing, as did the wisdom that there is no other path than the path I was one right now.

Facing and letting go of emotional baggage

What is already there within us is simply there within us and we cannot change or escape our present moment condition. It is a result of absolutely everything we have experienced in the past, both from the outside and inside. To deny and resist will only create more complex patterns of thought and emotion to untangle later down the line; to succumb to and feed into the emotion will only fuel it with stronger thoughts and feelings which tighten the knots; and to act on the emotion will manifest it into your physical reality, creating an unconscious and undesirable outcome that you will also have to face later down the line.

Since my journey began in 2014, I had become aware of an ongoing central chest pain after an energy healer pointed out that there was a blockage there. After all this time, it turns out that this heavy stabbing pain was a result of the chest tightness brought about by the chronic fear that I was blissfully unaware of. Big fears were always easy to spot in the past but knowledge of this constant low level chronic fear came through into my awareness after six weeks of deep observation. Even lining up for food caused a tightening of the chest and neurotic thoughts about choosing the wrong food to eat.

The consistent  observation of the breath had re-sensitised me to my chest to the point that tightness became very obvious when it arose, signifying fear. I would become conscious of the tightness, my mental state and the thoughts instantly through recognising this tightness and awareness would result in a natural letting go and relaxation which gradually diffused the feeling instead of letting it grow out of control.

If we truly wish to be free of our emotional baggage, the only way is to turn towards ourself and face it consciously and courageously. Instead of projecting emotions onto objects, others and ourself, we must feel and know emotion for what it is. That means to feel the rawness of the emotion in the physical body and watch how the emotion paints every memory from our past, every perception of our present and every projection of our future. Every thought becomes tainted by emotion, it is truly dazzling to see.


Consciousness and Beingness is the only clean way out of suffering

To find true release and progressively dissolve emotions that do not serve us, we must keep waking up to being with and seeing these complex patterns; consciousness appears to be the only clean way out. When we practice with all our heart to wake up and simply be with what is, everything will be fuel for our growing consciousness, fuel for our purity of being.

Awareness of the present moment and being with what is, can be easy to come to but seemingly challenging to maintain. It sometimes feels like an endless stop-start battle that requires all the will in the world. I have often resisted and tried to forcefully calm my mind when it was clearly upset, by doing so I was not being fully present with the emotion, but actually trying to suppress it or hurry it into a calm state. This only fuelled impatience, frustration and disconnection. Those times that I have been able to move through strong emotions cleanly have had the ingredients of clear perceiving, acceptance, deep surrender, patience, compassion and faith. I believe it serves us to really see our suffering and consciously give ourselves the space and unconditional love we deserve. This will only fuel awareness, along with positive and nurturing emotions in the wake of our suffering.

May peace be with you always xXx



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